It's hard to listen to the two singles, "Human Touch" and "Better Days," from Bruce Springsteen's forthcoming Human Touch and Lucky Town (his first albums since 1987's Tunnel of Love, both to be released by Columbia on March 31), without wishing you had a crowbar in hand to pry off their glossy shells to get a look at the chassis inside. If you did, you might say their engines burn clean -- but maybe too clean. And why should you need a crowbar to get to a song's heart, anyway -- particularly a Springsteen song?
It's strange, for instance, that a song called "Human Touch" builds to a climax that's grand, glorious, and hopelessly mechanical; it'd be right at home in a Simple Minds song. In the lyrics, Springsteen tells us what he's been looking for, and he's perfectly convincing: "You might need something to hold on to/When all the answers, they don't amount to much/Somebody you can just talk to/And a little of that human touch." When the song winds down to a hearty drum pulse, you expect it to fade. But as if it were necessary to underscore Springsteen's words with a thick magic marker, the drums kick in, more heavy-bottomed than before, wrapped in guitars that seem to have bought desperation by the yard, like wallpaper. Keyboards twinkle more like programmed Christmas lights than like stars.
Fortunately, just when you think Springsteen has let himself be run off the road by Top 40 rock bombast, he makes a lucky save: a guitar emerges from the song's slick surface, and it's for real -- a beautiful, burly, green-black beast. In it, you hear an inquisitive, unconscious plea that echoes his verbal one, and it escorts you out of the song. But it may not be enough to change your mind about the material. Both "Human Touch" and "Better Days" sound dispiritingly commercial in a way Springsteen's material hasn't sounded before. He's always been mainstream, but in the best sense: far from being banal, his music has been so embracing it's universal.
Springsteen can still turn a lyric: on "Better Days," when he sings, "Now a life of leisure and a pirate’s treasure don't make much for tragedy/But it's a sad man, my friend, who's living on his own and can't stand the company," he may be admitting that though he's a different person from the sage punk he once was, he still suffers -- his pain just wears a different stripe. Still, "Better Days" is more about enjoying newfound happiness: it rolls along on its own momentum and ends up a fat and happy snowball, dotted with the words "Better days with a girl like you." For all its catchiness, it never takes you prisoner.
"Better Days" and "Human Touch" are, after all, just singles, designed to catch your ear and, of course, sell albums. But it's still a disappointment that their titles tell you almost everything you need to know about them. You have to pick through them for their small buried treasures: the bright guitar motif, like a twist of shiny wire, that wends through "Better Days," or sweet, self-effacing lyrics like "I know I ain't nobody's bargain,/But hell, a little touch-up and a little paint. . ." (from "Human Touch").